Solving mysteries in history
A creaking, swinging door separates history from mystery.
You can pass through going either way. When you enter to study history, you are often coming from the head-scratching mystery side. If you start on the history side, your study frequently raises more mysteries than it answers.
I've been going back and forth both ways in the few week since I published a book of recollections by the late Paul Pintarich about his boyhood in the "wilds" of what would become Southwest Portland.
The book, "In My Time: Growing up in Pre-Suburbia," is available at Annie Bloom's in Multnomah Village.
The ink had hardly dried when I got emails from local history buffs and others who grew up around here. The first call wasn't really a mystery. It was about a mistake, and one that I made. A typo to be exact. I could dismiss it as a minor slip of the finger, but typos in books purporting to be histories chip away at the past.
Patti Waitman-Ingebretsen, treasurer of the Multnomah Historical Association and a native of these parts, informed me that the book had bungled a Barbur Boulevard Chinese restaurant's name. In transcribing Paul's columns I had mistyped it "Tai King Terrace." It should have been Tai Ping Terrace."
Patti wrote me several emails after that, mostly about her recollections of places (spooky caves and such!) that Paul describes in the book. Fortunately, she didn't find any more errors, at least not yet.
But Mike Roach, the co-owner of Paloma Clothing who lives just off Southwest Corbett Avenue, noticed right away that Paul consistently refers to Corbett STREET in the book. What gives? asked Mike.
Certainly Paul, whose dad's house was a stone's throw from Corbett, would know the proper name. Besides, just about everyone knows that north-south streets are "avenues" in Portland and east-west streets are "streets." (Don't ask about those "spaghetti" streets that end up being "roads, "drives" "courts" or minefields mud-worthy of expletives.)
I made a couple of lame excuses to Mike about Paul's error. After all, Paul had an ear for the sound of words and "Corbett Street" rings with a tattoo of "t"s. "Corbett Avenue" just dribbles off into nowhere. Besides, Mike offered, all avenues ARE streets, but all streets aren't avenues.
I'll return with the solution to the Corbett puzzle in a minute. Patience.
As is his wont, Mike didn't stop with Corbett. He was suspicious about another Pintarich historical claim. This one was deadly — in the manner of true mysteries.
In two or three places in the book, Paul recalls camping with his buddies on Mount Sylvania. Here's one reference: "On the lonely, windswept summit of Mount Sylvania, we occasionally camped among the deer and stared off into views of Forever. The story of a small plane crash sometime in the '40s haunted us. The plane carried members of a college football team to their deaths."
Mike, eyebrow raised, said he had never heard the story. Nor had Patti, for that matter. Could this be some "rural legend" trying to elbow its way into history? Or could it be the remnant of some ghost story young Paul and his pals concocted as they camped on the desolate summit of the old volcano?
The answer is yes, no and maybe.
Enter the Oregon Historical Society, followed shortly by Tim Lyman, president of the Multnomah Historical Association.
On a Friday, I fired off emails seeking help. I also slipped in my "Corbett Street" query for good measure. On Saturday I got my OHS email response from Scott Daniels, the "reference service manager," along with an attached PDF of an Oregonian front-page story dated Sept. 27, 1948.
There had been a deadly crash on Mount Sylvania, but the victims weren't members of a football team, as Paul had it. They were five young Fresno State College fans, all — including the pilot —, in their 20s. They were flying home from a football game against the University of Portland in a driving rainstorm shrouded in low cloud cover.
For you super-obsessive historians out there, Daniels wrote that the Fresno State-UP game ended in a tie.
Both Lyman and Daniels found the answer to the Corbett question too, but in slightly different places.
Wrote Lyman: "In an 1894 Portland paving map and a 1906 plat map, Corbett is Corbett Streer. No SW, just Corbett Street." Daniels noted: "Corbett Street until the early 1930s, then changed to Southwest Corbett Avenue."
I'm certain for Paul's dad and Paul himself, "Corbett Street" was fixed in time.
The moral? Be careful of that creaking, swinging door between mystery and history. It can smack you up the backside.